The Egyptian wife of Potiphar
The laws of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, drawn up several centuries before this story, show attitudes towards women at the time. There were laws to
It was probably in this period that women enjoyed greatest freedom and prestige. The stories in Genesis and Exodus show them as independent and strong, smart and tough. They displayed leadership and initiative. They almost always got their way when they wanted something.
The love poems and lullabies of this period are another source of information. Some of the material in the Song of Songs may have been drawn from Egyptian love songs, and there was certainly cross-fertilization between these two sources. Potiphar's wife would have known, and been influenced by, the rich sensuality of these songs, which describe the joys, pain, desire, confusion and hope of young love - or old, for that matter.
The song-poems capture the essence of private and personal feelings. They are about sexual, not romantic love. People in the ancient world were more comfortable with their sexuality than later Western civilization See the influence of Platonic dualism in 'Ideas About Women at That Time' in any of the chapters about New Testament women on this website, for example at 'The woman taken in adultery'.
Some examples of Egyptian love-songs follow:
A young man to his beloved:
A young woman tells her lover to hurry as he comes
Some of the poems are quite explicit; a young woman
describes the reward awaiting a lover:
A young man describes how helpless he is in the
toils of love:
(Poems adapted from material in 'The Song of Songs and the ancient Egyptian love songs', Michael V. Fox, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985)
The story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife is set in the very early period of Jewish history, at a time when the Hebrews were a nomadic people.
first they travelled
in small, mobile clans following their flocks wherever pasture was best. They
into territory already occupied by people called the Canaanites, a
relatively advanced group who lived a settled life in city-states and had
an economy based on agriculture and trade.
As they prospered, the settler groups grew larger and began to split into offshoot clans. Eventually, following a famine in Canaan, a large number migrated to Egypt, where they became workers on the state projects of the Pharaohs.
Even though they were living in the sophisticated cultural atmosphere of Egypt, these people held on to their own separate identity as Hebrews. The focus of their difference was worship of Jahweh, a deity who combined the power of all the gods of other tribes, but had a special relationship with them.
Because of its power and its proximity, Egypt has been a strong presence in the biblical history of Israel.
For additional information on the lives of women in the Bible, see the links to
Family, work and religion: the tribe, the family, slaves, women's tasks, beliefs
Milestones in a woman's life: Puberty, menstruation, marriage, childbirth, death, burials
Clothing and housing : ancient fabric, weaving, different styles for rich and poor